Thoughts from Lt. Col. Sherman Fleek on the Mormon Battalion and J. Reuben Clark
Two compelling historical lectures were provided to conference attendees by Lt. Col. Sherman Fleek (Ret.), who is the Command Historian at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. One was on the legacy of the Mormon Battalion and the other was about the life and beliefs of J. Reuben Clark.
First, as an LDS Church member and the author of several groundbreaking books and articles on the Mormon Battalion, Lt. Col. Fleek gave a lecture on the significance of the Mormon Battalion at the conclusion of each conference tour of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site in Old Town San Diego on Thursday afternoon, February 11, 2016. He emphasized that the Mormon Battalion was and still remains the only religious unit ever to serve in the U.S. Army. There have been many notable ethnic army units in American history, such as the Buffalo Soldiers (African-Americans) and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Japanese-Americans), but no other army units were ever formed around and named after a single religious affiliation.
Lt. Col. Fleek further observed that the Mormon Battalion was also the only Army unit whose officers and non-commissioned officers were called and appointed by a church leader instead of by an Army or government official. Although it is a myth that it made the longest military march in American history, the Mormon Battalion does have the further unique distinction of being the most memorialized army unit in our history. There are more monuments and visitors centers across this nation honoring the Mormon Battalion than any other single unit, which is a fulfillment of Brigham Young’s prophecy that the Mormon Battalion would be held in honorable remembrance.
Second, on Friday afternoon, February 12, 2016, Lt. Col. Fleek gave a lecture called “J. Reuben Clark: Conflicted Patriot.” In his lecture, he first compared and contrasted the “doctrine of war” as it is practiced and believed by Christian sects in general, and by the LDS Church in particular. He observed that the Book of Mormon has very specific doctrines guiding LDS beliefs on when it is and is not just to wage war. In this regard, Fleek explained how J. Reuben Clark’s beliefs on the justifications for war evolved over time, moving from being an ardent supporter of American involvement in World War I, to a pacifist position between the world wars and even during World War II, after he became a counselor in the First Presidency. President Clark lost his son-in-law, Captain Mervyn Bennion, heroic commander of the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia, during the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Notwithstanding his personal loss at Pearl Harbor, Clark remained steadfast in his belief that America should remain pacifist and should not retaliate. By contrast, President David O. McKay, also a counselor at that time to President Heber J. Grant, believed that the United States was justified in waging war against the Nazis and other aggressors in World War II.
After each of his lectures, Fleek answered a lively number of questions from conference participants. Everyone who attended felt enriched from the many interesting observations about these important Church historical characters.
By Paul A. Hoffman, 2016 Conference Planning Committee Member
Posted: March 29, 2016